Paying the Piper
Customers of the Narragansett Bay Commission - a third of the entire state of Rhode Island - have seen their sewer bills triple since 2001, largely to fund a half a billion dollar project aimed at satisfying federal mandates to improve the water quality of Narragansett Bay. But with more rate increases on the horizon the agency is asking the question: How clean is clean enough?
Click here for a breakdown of the rate increases since 2001 and click here for the Narragansett Bay Commission's budget for 2015.
Click here to watch our 2011 report on the Narragansett Bay Commission.
This massive mill building in the heart of Central Falls has undergone a transformation over the past decade - a big space once used to manufacture argyle socks and ace bandages is now home to dozens of smaller businesses.
Adams: ``There are probably about 55-60 small tenants here now. Most of them are art studios and wood working shops and screen printers and things like that.’’
Like any landlord, owner Jerauld Adams has to keep a close eye on overhead expenses while keeping his tenants happy. Electricity has been typically expensive, but it’s the sewer bill from the Narragansett Bay Commission that has caught Adams attention over the past few years.
Adams: ``I started calculating, because I could see it just by paying my bills, month to month, they seemed like they were going up before. Now they’re asking for even more money.’’
When Adams began crunching the numbers he found double-digit increases in some years.
Adams: ``I could see a 2 percent or 3 percent cost of living increase every year, to be fair, but when you jump up to 9 or 10 percent each year it’s just getting out of hand.’’
Adams is one of 80,000 customers in eight communities surrounding Providence served by the bay commission. That’s close to 360,000 people, more than a third of the entire state.
The Hummel Report found that since 2001 rates have more than tripled - primarily because of a three-phase underground combined sewer overflow project that has already cost half a billion dollars. That and upgrades to two treatment plants are required by the federal government through the Clean Water Act.
It’s a mandate without funding from the feds.
We first reported on the CSO project three years ago and the consensus was - and still is - the quality of the water in both the Providence River and Narragansett Bay has improved dramatically - the primary goal of the project. It comes, though, at a steep cost to ratepayers.
Marshall: ``We hear from the ratepayers it’s becoming more and more difficult to pay the bills.’’
Executive Director Ray Marshall has monitored the project - and the cost - since 2001.
Marshall: ``We knew that it was going to be very expensive. I think that we had a general idea of how much it was going to cost and the impacts it was going to have but until you really get into these projects, you don’t really fully appreciate what all the costs aspects to it are.’’
Hummel: ``There’s really no getting around as you sit around the table, you crunch the numbers, you try to save as much as you can. Whatever that bottom line is, goes back to the ratepayers.;;
Marshall: ``That’s right.’’
Adams: ``I could see with a regular homeowner if their bill went up 15, 20, 25 dollars it’s not as noticeable. Plus you’re paying it over 12 months, so it’s a couple of dollar s month, right?’’
And that may be why there hasn’t been more of an outcry. Last week the Public Utilities Commission, which must approve the bay commission’s rate increases, held a hearing attended by a grand total of…. one person.
Schiller: ``This agency has gone up way more than other state agencies and I think enough is enough, because homeowners are really struggling.’’
Barry Schiller, who owns a home in North Providence, asked how the PUC could approve such hefty increases.
Adams: ``With this building I’m paying $8,000 to $10,000 a year in sewer fees and there aren’t really any even any large water users in the building. It’s just toilets and hand washing so it’s not that much.’’
The numbers tell the story: In 2001 the average residential customer was paying $168 a year. With another projected 5 percent increase, that same customer will pay $550 this coming year - a bill that’s more than tripled in just over a decade.
Marshall says the skyrocketing rates have caused a `reassessment’ on the big picture within the Bay Commission. He says they are considering asking the feds for permission to delay Phase 3, which would extend up the Seekonk River to the Blackstone River - with an estimated price tag of another $200 to $300 million. It was supposed to begin in 2017 and be completed in 2021.
Marshall: ``There’s a huge benefit to having a sparkling clean bay - which is what our goal is by spending all of this money. The question I think is a really good question to ask is at this point, how much cleaner do you want it to be? Where do we reach the point where the public says it’s not worth spending or making it any cleaner. ‘’
Hummel: ``Are you are that point yet?
Marshall: ``I think we’re reaching the point where we should have that discussion.’’
Marshall says the Bay Commission rates are in the middle of the pack nationally but acknowledges that’s little comfort to the ratepayers in Rhode Island.
Hummel: ``It’s kind of hard to tell somebody who’s had a $165 bill that well you know you’re not paying as much as the guy in Cleveland or San Francisco or Miami and you’ve got a pretty good deal. That’s a tough sell isn’t it?’’
Marshall: ``It is. It is. It’s very difficult because no matter where you live you still have to write the check and if I cared about what was happening in San Francisco I’d live there.’’
Marshall also said the comparison is skewed because some larger cities facing budget problems have put off beginning their sewer overflow projects and that the Narragansett Bay Commission is almost two-thirds complete.
Marshall: ``Hartford is a good example. Hartford has a program that’s going to be something that approaches $2 billion and they’re just getting started on theirs - whatever their rates are, they’re going to be dramatically different 5 to 10 years from now.’’
In Rhode Island the question for the feds is a simple one
Marshall: ``Can we stop now? And EPA’s response is present the case to us and we’ll consider whether we’ll allow you to delay the projects for a number of years, until you can - and this is my phrase, not theirs - you can catch your breath.’’
It’s a breather the ratepayers could use as well.
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.